During a telephone chat, Wake County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens, in his 29th year on the bench, chuckled and said, “I’m a survivor!”
“And, so are you,” he reminded me.
I was Juror No. 12 for two days in June in Stephens’ courtroom. It was a civil matter.
I always dread being called for jury duty. This time, I dreaded it so much, I’d forgotten about the summons until the night before. Unwittingly having forfeited my chance to request to be excused, I banked on not being seated, or tricking my way into dismissal. But I’m no magician.
As I gave my name to jury clerk Nancy Vann for check in, I launched into an impromptu diatribe about how I needed to be excused. If called, Vann said calmly, I could talk to the judge.
I turned to find a seat and saw a sea of others – many wearing my sentiments on their faces, too. I should have tried the big-mouthed-journalist card, I thought. I sat, sighed and sipped my breakfast smoothie, thankful now for the extra oatmeal I tossed into the blender.
“When I started back in ’84, people really looked forward to jury service,” Stephens said. “Today, nobody looks forward to it as an opportunity. The whole attitude about jury service has changed. My whole orientation today is different than it was 29 years ago.
“After people sit there a while, they realize it really is important … a necessary and responsible thing.”
Like me, Jane Bailey, 56, had never served on a jury. And, like me, she didn’t want to, either.
But Bailey, Juror No. 10, became our jury’s forewoman.
“Everybody goes in there apprehensive because it’s unchartered waters for most of us,” said Bailey, daughter of the late Raleigh attorney J. Ruffin Bailey. “I felt very apprehensive.”
Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, author of “Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action,” calls jury duty “an invitation to participate in the American experiment of self-government.” He adds, “it may well be the closest you ever come to the Constitution.”
Jury duty highlights the constitutional values of deliberation, fairness, equality, accountability, liberty and the common good, he says. Guthrie also emphasizes what we gain as jurors, as citizens fulfilling a civic duty. We experience interaction with people who are different, who offer other perspectives and information. We learn about the laws that govern us, our rights as jurors, and parties in court cases, and the rules we must use to make our decision. And ultimately, Guthrie writes, we get to test our abilities to deliberate and debate with others, to tolerate them and cooperate beyond our differences of opinion or experience, and to be civil and fair in coming to a verdict.
“Those habits and skills, our civic education, helps define who we are as Americans,” Guthrie writes.
Vann, the jury clerk, told me the same when my number was called. “I promise it will be interesting and educational,” she said. “It’s an interesting process.”
They – Stephens, Guthrie and Vann – are right.
I also understand now more than ever, especially on the heels of the acquittal in Florida of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. When it works as it’s built to work – no matter what we think about the jury in that trial or their decision – it shows as President Barack Obama said, “We are a nation of laws.”
Jury forewoman Bailey agreed, using a sports analogy, fitting because she is the athletic director for the Raleigh Parks & Recreation Department.
“People want to read between the lines in a rule book,” she said, “but you cannot do that. It’s the same with the law.”
Our case lasted two days, and we rendered a unanimous verdict in an hour.
“Being able to talk to each other and have respect for each other … that just happened,” Bailey said, echoing what Vann called “juror bonding” – and the relief I felt when deliberations were smooth despite some debate. “That’s the way it should be.
“I would not dread it if I was called again.”
Neither would I.